A little over two years ago, in the midst of a serious crisis at the state university where I had been a member of the board of trustees for more than eight years, the sudden illness of our board chair resulted in my being promoted from vice chair to chair only six months into a two-year term.
The crisis itself was complicated; our president of 12 years had just received a no-confidence vote from the faculty, was navigating through his own serious medical issues, and would soon decide to take an immediate medical leave of absence. He subsequently retired several years earlier than planned.
Adding to the severity of the situation, although the provost/ executive vice president was named acting president immediately, he was less than two months away from leaving for a new job as president of an out-of-state university. While he quickly and adeptly took over the reins of the university, I began walking around the campus to meet members of the community, introduce myself, and listen to their concerns. It became evident that although we had considered ourselves diligent and attentive board members, our board was in some ways out of touch.
One of my earliest conversations, not long after spring commencement, was a chance meeting with the faculty union president. After we chatted for a few minutes, I asked her to tell me the top five things that were keeping her up at night— an experience I was having myself.
I think back to that conversation, and while I can’t recall exactly what her middleof- the-night worries included, I remember vividly the revelation that resulted from her answers: As a board, we knew so little about how the university functioned on a person-to-person, human-to-human basis.
I knew we had done a diligent job with the required reading in advance of our long meeting days, which included academic affairs, student affairs, finance, development, and building & grounds committee meetings in the morning (with the broad participation of cabinet members, administration, appointed faculty, and students). And I felt as though we had a good grasp of pressing issues, long-range planning, and the business of running a university of 8,000 undergraduate and graduate students. But as board members, we had missed a key element—the “voices” of those we were serving. On my walking tours, I soon realized we lacked exposure to the inside perspective of our constituency. A question came to me, one that to this day I ask myself every time I am on campus: As a board chair, how can I help our board hear the authentic, informative voices of our community? How can we reach out as a board, and how can the community reach out to us?
For me personally, this question has dovetailed nicely with our post-crisis commitment to the serious study and analysis of shared governance at our university. Two years into the work of this constituency- wide task force committee, we have some clearly articulated ideas on how to try and achieve this difficult, but worthwhile, outreach. One recommendation was to continue to host open community forums throughout the academic year. Past forums have elicited valuable information and honest feedback about shared governance and other issues. This year, the university created an ombudsman office so community members can share their concerns privately.
We also need to strive for collaboration of the board of trustees, administration, faculty senate, and unions to figure out how to have more interaction. Even though all of us are stressed about time, workload, and life in general, as board chair I’d like to find a way for us to get out of our respective “bubbles” and establish better methods of keeping us connected and informed. It’s a work in progress, to be sure!